From the time that the wheels of the C-130 lifted off of the runway at Al Asad Air Base, and I took off on my very first combat flight in Iraq, it only took me maybe a little bit more than 72 hours in that environment to become a completely different person. I was a 22 year old C-130 Crew Chief in the United States Marine Corps, and that first flight was on May 1st, 2006 (I still have my aviators flight log book). In the remarks I wrote FWAR X 2, which meant that we flew two fixed-wing aerial refueling missions. I believe we refueled some F-18s until we were low on fuel ourselves, then flew back to base, refueled on the ground with the engines running, then took off again to repeat the whole process. For aerial refueling, we would just fly for hours in huge circles pretty much (called aerial refueling tracks), and the receiving aircraft that needed fuel would come to us. That first flight time was just over six hours. I remember thinking after we were done about how easy the flight was, and how it was really no different from the countless training flights that we did back in the States (besides the scenery and the landscape of course). I felt relieved, and figured that this whole deployment stuff wouldn’t be too bad.
May 2nd- This was a day off for me, as I wasn’t on the flight schedule. I’m sure I slept during most of the day; that was my strategy for killing time over there. I definitely could have been more productive with my downtime in Iraq, but sleeping did kind of work, as it made time go by faster. Also, being asleep in my air conditioned can (which is what we called the modified shipping containers that we lived in), was a lot better than being outside in the blazing Iraqi heat.
May 3rd- This day was different. After I woke up and got ready for the day, I walked down to the squadron flight operations office to look at the flight schedule. This time the flight board said another FWAR, but it also said ANG X 1. ANG is shorthand for an “Angel Flight”, which meant that we would be picking up the coffin of a fallen American servicemember and flying it to Kuwait, where it would later be flown back home to the United States (usually by the Air Force, or by a contracted civilian aircraft). I remember my stomach sank when I saw the board, and that’s when I officially realized that I was in Iraq, and in a war zone. I can’t say that I really wanted to go on the flight, but obviously I didn’t have a choice. After our aerial refueling mission was complete, we ended up flying to Al Taqqadum Air Base on this day (which is located in between Ramadi and Fallujah), to pick up our Angel. Basically we would land, taxi, and then park our aircraft, and shut the engines down. The loadmaster in the back would lower the cargo ramp and door, and then our whole crew would line up in formation behind the aircraft, waiting for a diesel truck to approach. Even though it never took more than a matter of minutes for the truck to arrive, those minutes felt like hours, as we all waited in an eerie and uncomfortable silence. The truck would come, a group of Marines that worked with Mortuary Affairs would get out, and then would proceed with extreme care as they gently unloaded the coffin out of the back. We would stand at attention and then salute as they slowly walked in between our formation, while carrying the large, cold, steel casket, draped in a perfectly crisp American Flag. They walked up the ramp and then slowly placed the coffin onto the cargo floor. The Marines would then do an about face and exit the aircraft. Once they passed us, we would complete an about face as well, and the ceremony was over. The loadmaster and I would have to then secure the coffin to the floor with cargo straps. The first time that I did this was completely surreal, and I felt awful. On that first Angel Flight, I do distinctly remember one thing though. The casket had a tag safety wired to it, with the person’s name, date of birth, blood type, and Social Security number on it. I remember writing the info down, so that I could read up on them later, whether it be from their local hometown newspaper, or whatever I could find online. I figured it was the least that I could do, and maybe in some way it would help me deal with this whole bizarre situation later on. I tucked the piece of paper that I had written on into my flight bag; then we took off again, and headed south towards Kuwait.
May 4th- The next day as I walked into operations to check out the flight schedule, I was going on another refueling/Angel flight. Although this time, the board said ANG X 4. We would be picking up four coffins. And I think that is when I officially shut down on my first deployment, both mentally and emotionally. If this was going to become the routine (and it did), I think that’s the only way that I could process it, and make it through these flights. I’m ashamed of it now, but from that day forward, I just pretended that the caskets were empty. During the ceremonies, I would of course stand at attention and salute, but my eyes were fixed on the horizon, staring off into nothing, instead of looking at the passing coffin. Eventually, it didn’t even feel weird for me to sit in the back of the plane with the coffins on the floor, or to walk around them with my flashlight in hand as I did my hourly in-flight checks of various flight systems and equipment. I became numb to it; it became normal, and I was completely empty. I never wrote down another person’s information either, and I threw that first piece of paper away. It really bugs me now knowing that I did that; it was a very selfish act, but that’s what I did.
Steve Gunderman is a student veteran majoring in Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He served for five years in the United States Marine Corps as a C-130 Crew Chief, and completed two deployments to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq.